I know this is a writing blog! And it’s relevant, I swear, on several levels. Inspiration for this post came in a round-about fashion (Men are waffles, women are spaghetti, right?) after I posted a disclaimer on Twitter: “Just because an author depicts rape does not mean they condone it.”
After the recent tarring and feathering of EL James on Twitter, I’ve been [even more] anxious about how the content of Colossus is going to be received. I’ve never been a victim of rape, so I have to rely on my experience with domestic violence to capture the psychological reactions to the physical abuse piled upon my characters. Since the events of Colossus span an entire month, I imagine the psychological trauma is more comparable to extreme domestic violence (the main difference being an emotional attachment).
Considering these things led me to write this blog about the aspects of domestic violence that are not so obvious. I use many of these – er – externalities in the books.
Disclaimer: Even thought I use the impersonal “You,” this account is purely subjective. Not all cases of domestic violence are the same, and I do not speak for all victims, only myself. I also have to say that abuse is not exclusively man-on-woman, although my impersonal you examples are. (Also be warned: this is very disorganized.)
Fear and anger are obvious results of domestic violence. What’s not so obvious?
Abuse is physically exhausting. It’s draining, like an illness or depression. Many nights, I drank myself to sleep around midnight or one, some nights much later, then I had to wake up at five. These were not even nights that altercations occurred. On those nights, I may have gotten an hour or so of sleep. I called out of work two or three times due to nights like that.
It’s difficult to remember. I remember my hair being a tangled mess more than I remember what caused it. It would take longer to get my hair brushed than it would for the physical pain to fade. I have trouble describing certain events – especially in writing – because I want to depict them honestly, but there are too many gaps in my recollection, and it makes me feel fallible, like my story isn’t valid because there are parts I have to leave out.
I can’t believe I finally said that.
Abuse makes you mean and petty. Not universally, but selectively. I was never so mean to my mother as when I was being beaten, and our relationship has never fully recovered from that. This meanness was inconsistent, of course. I served my abuser hand and foot, but I could get nasty. Sometimes I would start the fights, and I would throw the first punches, but other times I would not fight back as I should have. I have a lot of fight in me, but also a lot of compassion, and one would always get in the way of the other. I should have killed him when I had the chance, but the thought never even occurred to me.
I was mean to my family because they could see hints of what was happening – though not the reality of it – and they tried to pull me away from it by alienating my abuser. They would ask me not to invite him to family dinners, not to bring him home with me when I visited on the weekends. They warned me against the influence he had over me. I was embarrassed, and I was arrogant, and it made me bitter.
Which leads me to my next one: Abuse makes you three-faced. Not two-faced, but three: You have the face you wear with your friends when he is around, then when he is not around, then when you are alone with him. Around others, I felt like I had to be superior to him, smarter, as if I were doting and attention because I was deigning to be. Around others, everything was blissful and peachy. When I was around friends without him, he was the superior: I talked him up and promoted him tirelessly. When we were alone, I was a martyr (when I wasn’t being mean, which increased with time). I gave him anything and everything, and invested in him 100%, because I really believed in him. I was willing to suffer his moods and endure his storms, because at heart, my abuser was a compassionate, pained, brilliant soul. Too bad he refused to get help. He was too afraid to face himself.
Abuse makes you angry and bitter. Duh. But not in the way most people think. Yes, in those ways, but other ways, too. The thoughts in my head were random, ridiculous, and often really sounded like a Taylor Swift song: “Like, this is exhausting. I will never, ever believe your conspiracy theories. Like, ever.” (He believed, among other things, that Obama was not an American citizen, and that ALL school shootings were the result of government brainwashing programs in order to enforce gun control. That should have been a hint.)
Bitterness and exhaustion blend into wryness and sarcasm. Yes, I lay on the floor thinking, “When is it going to end?” and “Please, Lord, save me” – or “Please, Lord, let me die” – but I also thought, when he tore my only navy blue tank top, “You owe me a tank top, motherfucker…” I told him as much too, and he slammed my head against a cinder block wall. There are many more examples, but that is the only one that comes to mind. Like I said, bad memory.
This stage – the snarky, sarcastic stage – is a blessing. I can see now that it marked the beginning of the end. Once I reached this stage, I had one foot out the door. The other was in the grave, but I was still one step farther than I was when the abuse started.
I hate saying this, and I hate admitting it to myself, but:
It should have been obvious. When we were walking up Cherry Street late one night, before we were officially dating, even, he told me to shut up. With someone you know well, this isn’t usually a grand event, because it’s usually not in earnest. But his face was surly, and his tone was bitter, and I was just talking about a movie. He was conveying that he sincerely had no respect for me and what I had to say. His words and his tone was foreshadowing of what would come…
The first time he ever touched me in anger, he wrapped his arms around me and wrestled me to the ground. We had been arguing about politics – it was 2008. When he got up and left, I threw a glass at him. He said later that he took that as an indication of my strength and spirit, that, unlike his ex, I could handle him. Despite these red-flags and my reservations, I bowled through. If anything, I am proud and bull-headed.
Abuse is not a constant environment of pain and fear. Sometimes, I’m sure, it is a hostage situation. However, it is more commonly a case of brain-washing. I was emotionally attached, proud, isolated, and committed. He played on all of these qualities – created some of them. Leaving would be an ethical failure on my behalf. I sincerely believed that. I convinced myself that it was not as bad as it seemed, and I could tolerate it.
I was in that relationship from May 2008 to April 2011, and I was only ever scared for my life twice. I’m sure I was in danger far more often, but I usually considered the fights more painful than life-threatening, even when he pointed a gun at me (which happened three times, and admitting that leads to the Holy shit, what was I thinking? thoughts, even though I answered above. That sense of shame will never go away). Usually in a fight, my abuser was in control of his actions (just not his emotions). He would waffle between violent and affectionate, sometimes several times, but he would never raise his voice, and every move was deliberate. His goal was restraint and oppression. He never punched or slapped me, but would twist my limbs painfully, knock me into the wall or floor, and pin me there. Only on two occasions did he scream. He was the embodiment of wrath. I sincerely believed he was possessed. His goal at those times was not to restrain me, but to smother me. The first time, I realized that I couldn’t use my usual method of waiting out the mood; I would be dead if I tried. It was the first and only time I ever screamed for help. (We lived in a manor that had been converted into apartments. No fewer than five men came to my rescue. My abuser spent eight weeks in jail. I fought to have those charges dropped, and I will never not regret that.) The second time this happened, I recognized it when it started. His mother intervened. Somehow, that worked, although it had never worked in the past.
Over those years, the most common feeling was that exhaustion, that bitterness. It kept me on the floor, thinking, “Just get it over with. I just want to die here.”
Abuse makes you abusive. (Let me pause here to throw a little fit, because thinking about it makes me livid.) This goes much further than “Abuse makes you mean.” When someone treats you a certain way, you tend to convince yourself that it is OK to treat them that way. I would demean him, start fights, and hit him. Not like I should have, not to defend myself, but out of spite.
But it’s much worse than that. Abuse gave me a short temper. The day after he tried to murder me – the day after I screamed for help – I went back to work. When my students became uncooperative, I slammed a textbook on the ground. (Reading this, you might be like, “Big whoop. So what?” but you need to close your eyes and imagine it to see how out-of-line it was.)
I left my abuser in April 2011, and promptly jumped into a relationship with the man I’m married to now. I don’t recommend doing this at all, even though it worked out for me. After a serious relationship, one should always be celibate for a spell, to get re-acquainted with oneself. I spent a long time, a few years, thinking, Who the fuck am I? Do I like pop music or not? Do I still like horror movies? Why am I thinking that? Returning to the anger issue, the autumn after I left my abuser and moved in with my to-be husband, I hit him. I threw my keys at him and hit him in the arm. The relationship almost ended right there, but after defusing, he understood. I calmed down eventually – I never hit him again – but I still have a pretty short temper.
I am full of shame. It does not matter how many times I am assured, by myself or others, that I should not feel this way, I do. I feel stupid for enduring, encouraging, and enabling all of the things in this post, and those I didn’t include. I feel ashamed for treating my family like I did, and alienating my best friends (because they saw it, although I refused to admit it). I set a bad example for my students (Insert string of expletives here). I left my job and moved away from Macon (because everyone in Macon knew after he had been arrested, and he was ashamed to be there). Talking about how I should not feel this way does not help, by the way.
I will never get over it. Like alcoholism or clinical depression, abuse isn’t something you get over. You have to manage it. Almost every day, I wrestle with thoughts that threaten to send me reeling back into that anger and bitterness. And I have nightmares. God, the nightmares! It could be something as simple as sitting with the man and having a conversation, but it will convince me that I am back there again, back then. Even though I wake up safe next to my husband, it will take me most of the day to convince myself that I am not in that situation anymore, and I never will be. I have not seen my abuser and haven’t spoken to him more than five times in as many years, and I don’t have to ever again.
The thing that I am most bitter about, I think, is that I experience pangs of fear from pure projection. I feel like I’ve been ruined in some way because of this. My husband learned long before we were ever in a relationship that he should never raise his hand in anger – to a man or a woman – even if physical confrontation is your job (He was a bouncer for several years. Kennesaw PD dubbed him, “The biggest asshole in Kennesaw.”). Therefore, he has never raised his hand to me or threatened me in any way, even when I hit him with my keys, even when I was wrong, or during a heated debate. Despite this, if we are arguing, or even when he’s grumpy, my muscles get tight and I brace myself, expecting him to swing at me. My abuser did this. Sometimes I would not even know he was irritated until it was too late. To have that carry over into my marriage, to fear my husband, makes me livid. I’m furious writing about it.
Thank you for reading through this meandering rant. I hope it provided some insight. I’m sorry I can’t think of a more cohesive conclusion than this.